Reviewed by Ian Carter
When I was first getting interested in wildlife in the 1980s, Lars Jonsson was seen almost as a cult figure by young birders. He had published a series of slimline fieldguides based on different habitats (mountains, sea coast etc) and these were later updated and amalgamated into one book covering all birds in Europe. He was able to paint birds in a way that no-one else could, capturing their characteristics so well it seemed they might leap off the page at any moment. I knew an impoverished (and normally law abiding) A-level student who dropped one of the early books out of the window of his local library, so desperate was he to own it (and no it wasn’t me – really, it wasn’t).
I still regularly dip into his European fieldguide, first published 25 years ago, and although it might have been overtaken in popularity by more recent works, no other guide gives me as much pleasure to open – partly nostalgia perhaps, but also the beauty of the artwork and the quality of the accompanying text.
Winter Birds is an altogether different type of book. It focuses on 59 species and deals with each in some detail. Many are birds that he sees regularly in winter on and around feeders at his studio on the island of Gotland, southern Sweden, most of which are also common at British bird-tables. He also includes some of the enigmatic species that occur mainly to the north; birds that hold a special appeal to British birdwatchers because of their status as rare visitors to this country, or the fact that they have yet to make it here – birds like the Nutcracker, Siberian Jay, Arctic Redpoll, Waxwing and Black Woodpecker.
The book is as much about his insights into these species as it is about the superb paintings and sketches. As an artist there is an understandable focus on describing the way birds look – the colours, shapes and textures that must be appreciated and understood in order to have a chance of transferring them to the page. The book goes a long way to explaining how he is able to paint birds so well: he looks at them with an attention to detail that, as a non-artist, I find almost impossible to imagine.
Of course, looking closely at birds for long periods also helps to build a picture of their behaviour and there is plenty of insight into that too. He describes the essential character of each species as he sees it – the way birds move around the landscape, what they feed on, the noises they make and how they interact with each other as they strive to come through another winter. He tries to get into their heads; to explain what makes them tick. In doing so, he combines his own observations with knowledge gleaned from the literature to help paint as complete an image as possible. He writes as an ornithologist as well as an artist.
I’ve never met him (so maybe I’m wrong) but he comes across as someone who is utterly content with a life that involves so much time observing wildlife, even after decades of close study. He appears to relish every new encounter with a bird as if he is renewing old acquaintances. The translation from the original Swedish (by David Christie) has done well to retain the very personal feel to the book, including a few quirks and oddities that result from the use of a different language and could easily have been lost with a more officious approach.
This is an engaging book based on a deep, hard-won knowledge of these birds, but it is also a warm and charming book and one that, as with the fieldguide from all those years ago, is a delight to open.
Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson is published by Bloomsbury.
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